Difficult Dialogue in Distressing Days

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

Another week, another round of things for people to vehemently and caustically disagree about. Whether it’s politics, economics, social issues, or religious news, we can’t seem to disagree with one another fast enough. We’ll pick up a cause and champion it for a time, only to have something else catch our attention and demand our outspoken criticism or support. Why can’t we seem to see eye to eye?

Obviously, worldview divergences stand at the heart of some disagreement. You and I (and everyone else) see the world in differing ways, which leads us to come to different conclusions or explanations for the various crises occurring in our time.

But I wonder if there’s a deeper issue at work too. An anonymous quote came across my newsfeed the other day, one that I think summarizes our current predicament well:

“Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding about politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.”

We’ve been taught to avoid having difficult conversations for so long that we’ve actually forgotten how to have those conversations (or never knew how to have them in the first place). We fight and quarrel amongst ourselves so readily because we don’t have the ability to have productively difficult conversations with one another. Now, I’m not the first person to point this out. Indeed, one of the major reasons that Conciliar Post was founded was to provide a space for thoughtful, faithful people to have difficult discussions. Promoting “meaningful dialogue across traditions” is what we’re all about.

But this leaves open the question of how. How do we have meaningful dialogue in today’s world? How can we make sense of our world while challenging other people in loving ways? I want to offer eight suggestions:

  1. Listen in order to understand. Instead of hearing what someone else has to say for the primary purpose of defeating their position, we must learn to listen to others in order to understand what they are actually trying to communicate. Only then can we productively explain our own viewpoint.1
  2. Listen to people with whom you disagree. Pay attention to people who think differently than you.2 Read their books. Listen to their podcasts. Subscribe to their blogs. Follow them on social media. Take them seriously. Don’t offer strawmen—engage what real people really have to say.
  3. Reflect. This might be the hardest thing to do in our social media age. Everyone wants news and reactions immediately. Immediately. Eschew the fixation on immediacy (and the posturing that comes along with it) and take a moment to reflect on what is actually going on before making a judgment about it. As human beings, we’re mostly terrible at making complex snap judgments. Take a moment to think before you engage.
  4. Verify your facts. I take it back—this is the hardest thing to do in our social media age. It’s so easy to share something that gets our blood boiling without ever pausing to see if that information is true. Last week, in the wake of the horrible violence in El Paso, Dayton, and other places, my social media feeds filled with people spouting statistics about gun violence (from both sides of the aisle, mind you). Almost no one provided any sort of verification. Sure, saying that there has been more than one mass shooting in America per day sounds enticing and horrible—but is it true? No one wants to be disseminating fake news, so make sure that you’re verifying your facts.
  5. Commit to civility. Make the decision not to debase people, engage in ad hominem attacks, interact disrespectfully, or otherwise use the relative anonymity of the internet to say horrible things about other people. Just don’t. Seek a more excellent way and communicate with other people respectfully. And on that note….
  6. Have face-to-face conversations. Don’t just interact with other people online—have face-to-face conversations with people. Get out of your bubble. Grab coffee with someone. Have people over for dinner (have your neighbors over for dinner!). Have conversations with people with whom you agree—and with whom you disagree.
  7. Do something. Don’t just share a post on social media and think that you’ve meaningfully contributed to the resolution of a problem. Do something about it. Hashtag activism that doesn’t lead to actual action is nothing short of hypocrisy. Now, you obviously can’t fix every problem; but you can do something about some issue or issues. So do it. Get involved.
  8. Pray. In my less charitable moments, I wonder how many of us say things like “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” and then never give the person or situation another meaningful thought—let alone pray for what’s going on. Don’t get me wrong; I understand and appreciate the sentiment. But as followers of the risen Jesus, our prayers must not be meaningless platitudes. We must actually throw ourselves before God in prayer. You think abortion is evil? You think mass shootings need to end? You’re not pleased with a government official? When was the last time you prayed about those things? Are you consistently bringing them before God? The people of God must bring their concerns to Him in prayer, not just in platitudes.

Will these practices and approaches solve all the world’s problems? No. Only the Second Coming of our Lord will do that.3 But committing ourselves to having productively difficult conversations in these ways will help us make better sense of our world—and enable us to serve as faithful and fruitful lights within it.

What about you: what practices and approaches help you productively dialogue with other people?


Notes

1 Relatedly, much of our media intentionally perverts this idea. Dramatic films or shows are often all about perceived (rather than real) problems that could easily be solved through conversation. Even our sports news is now filled with dramatic talking heads whose sole purpose seems to be shouting at one another rather than having an actual conversation with another person.

2 This doesn’t mean that you have to listen to everyone of course. But finding a couple of well-respected voices from “the other side” is an excellent discipline. Robert P. George and Cornel West are a fantastic example of this.

3 A fact that, it seems, Christians must do a better job of remembering in the public square when we promote this or that cause as the thing that will turn society around. As Jesus reminds us in John 16:33, in this world there will be trials and tribulations.

Canoeing the Mountains

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

After fifteen difficult months of travel, they had made it. Lewis and Clark had reached the spring that began the Missouri River, that great river they had been following since they crossed the Mississippi and began their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase.

For over three hundred years before Lewis and Clark arrived at this spot, explorers from numerous nations had assumed that just beyond the headwaters of the Missouri were the headwaters to the Columbia River, and with it, a route to the Pacific. Indeed, this was the entire purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition—to determine the best way to connect the Missouri and the Columbia, thus connecting east and west, Atlantic and Pacific. To accomplish this goal, the expedition had invested heavily in their canoes—big, sturdy things that could carry all the supplies and people needed to make their trek from the Mississippi to the Pacific as manageable as possible.

Meriwether Lewis himself had written about his belief that when they reached the springs that fed the Missouri, he and his men would walk up a hill, look down across perhaps a half-day portage, and then simply set their canoes in the Columbia and set off for the Pacific Ocean. All they needed to do was crest the hill, find the steam, and coast to the finish line.

Lewis and Clark could not have been more disappointed.

What they actually discovered was that three hundred years of geographical assumptions were completely and utterly wrong. For when they reached the top of the hill and looked out, they saw not the Columbia River, but the Rocky Mountains. Stretching out for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see, one set of peaks after another: tall, dangerous, and imposing. In other words, Lewis and Clark didn’t see anything like what they expected to see—and not at all what they were trained or prepared for.

And in that moment, Lewis and Clark were faced with a choice: should they turn back, or should they press on? They were equipped with canoes; before them lay mountains. And in the words of one of their companions, “the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.” No one would blame them if they turned back; no one would think less of them if they needed to regroup and try again later. Should they take the safe bet? Or should they venture into the unknown, into uncharted territory that was even more dangerous and uncertain than they had originally thought?

Of course, there are museums dedicated to Lewis and Clark across the United States precisely because they didn’t turn back. We know the names Meriwether Lewis and William Clark because they embraced the path before them and forged ahead, into the unknown, even though the path was very different than they originally expected. In the words of Tod Bolsinger, Lewis and Clark canoed the mountains: they adapted, they learned new skills, and they completed their mission, even though the circumstances of that mission changed. It’s a fitting description for many aspects of reality right now. But it’s particularly fitting for planting a church during a pandemic.

Planting During a Pandemic

I’ve written previously about church planting at Conciliar Post, what it is and why it’s important, and even shared some of my church plant’s working projects on things like leadership in the church. But, as I’ve taken to saying, that was “before the dark times.” Church planting, like exploring, is difficult under the best of circumstances and 2020 is not the best of circumstances. With the arrival of COVID, much of life was thrown into chaos. The seemingly inevitable became problematic and dangerous. The best-laid plans were disrupted, and “uncertainty” became the watchword for “these unprecedented times.”1

Like so many other ventures, COVID forced us to consider the wisdom and viability of trying to launch a startup church at a time when nothing seems to be starting up. In the spring and summer, we wrestled with all manner of questions about the uncertainty of the future, the realities of the virus, social perceptions, and logistics. How does one build community, reach the lost, and pay the bills while under quarantine? What would happen if a staff member or key volunteer gets sick (or worse)? What might happen if church becomes a super-spreader event? Would pressing on distract people from the gospel? Would being open drive people away rather than inviting them in? With so many gathering spaces closed, where will we meet? Without the benefit of face-to-face team building, will anyone still plant with us? These are but some of the questions we faced and wrestled with.

The Shift

As we sought to answer these questions for our plant (or, at least get as close to answering them as possible), we relied on a number of voices. Foremost were conversations with our leadership team and the leadership team from our planting church. We also were in consistent communication with our church planting network, which helped give us insights into how different leaders and churches were creatively tackling some of the concerns we were facing. Finally, there was the value of experience. From late May until August, I was serving as an associate pastor at our planting church, where I was on the frontlines of doing church during a pandemic. In combination with lots of prayer, these conversations and experiences gave us the grounding to make some critical decisions.

Most significantly, we made the decision to move our plant from a movie theater to a storefront. Rather than leaving the week-to-week fate of church meetings in the hands of a distant corporation, we moved to lease some local space in a local shopping center. This enabled us to work directly with St. Louis County on adhering to COVID restrictions, rather than some intermediary who may or may not include additional restrictions. Such a space would also allow us to host other meetings throughout the week, including the filming of online services in the event of another shutdown. Of course, this shift of venue resulted in a cascade of other changes.

No longer could we need to plan for a portable church that would pack into our trailer every Sunday morning. Instead, we needed to sell our trailer, find chairs, and acquire all the other accoutrements necessary for a semi-permanent church space. This required plenty of adjustments to our preparations. As one example, when you’re meeting temporarily in a movie theater, you don’t have to worry about where your toilet paper comes from and if you have enough trash cans; but when you’re the tenant in a space, those mundane things are a little more important. We also had to make some changes to our service schedule (we have two services instead of one in order to facilitate space-friendly seating arrangements) and our launch timeline. We had hoped to launch on September 13. But because of all these COVID-induced changes, we were forced to move our launch all the way back to September 20.

But, Why?

At this point, it’s natural to ask why. Why are we planting in a pandemic? Why have we jumped through so many hoops in order to launch this Fall? It would have been far safer organizationally, financially, and personally to remain in our comfortable and well-resourced planting church until things settle down. So why did we press on toward planting?

Because people still need Jesus.

Studies have consistently shown that church plants are one of the best ways to reach people who don’t know Jesus with the good news of the kingdom of God. The fact that people still need to encounter and be transformed by Jesus hasn’t changed because of this pandemic (or any other obstacle). The Church still has a mandate to “make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:19-20). Our mission has not changed—only the circumstances in which we work.

All of the reasons that we needed church plants in 2019 also apply in 2020; only the need for churches to reach their communities is greater. More innovation is required to survive and thrive. More churches have plateaued or are in decline. People are still hurting and in need of safe communities, perhaps now more than any other time in recent history. Loneliness, anxiety, depression, isolation, and self-harm were epidemics before COVID and they’re only getting worse. People crave authentic connection and community—even more so after they’ve been in social isolation for long periods of time. The world is decidedly not normal—but the Church can still be a place of relative normalcy, a place where we can be reminded of the goodness and hope of the Gospel that we so desperately need when things are not normal.

Canoeing the Mountains

Fear, sickness, hatred, racism, division, malice, and anxiety may seem to guide much of our world right now, but that’s not the whole story. What better time to bring people the hope of light and life eternal in Jesus Christ than in the midst of this present darkness?

God has given us the task of planting a church. And God has provided an amazing team and the resources to carry that task out. We can be confident that God will be faithful to carry through to completion what He has started. Yes, things have changed. No, things are decidedly not easy. But the world needs Jesus. Our nation needs Jesus. Our city needs Jesus. That’s always true. But it’s especially true right now.

And so, we move forward. The future is yet uncertain; there’s still much that’s up in the air. We’re only in our seventh official week right now. All signs have been promising so far, but only God knows the future. All we can do is trust and hope in Him. Well, that—and we can continue to canoe the mountains.


Notes

1 I say this tongue-in-cheek: the only things truly unprecedented about this global pandemic is that we can dissect it on social media faster than it can spread and that modern medicine continues to perform miracles right before our eyes to save perhaps millions of human lives from our fragility and stubbornness.

Suggestions for Social Media Sanity

In case you haven’t heard, social media has garnered quite the reputation. Whether you’re talking about the perniciousness of Twitter-fueled outrage, the placidity of hashtag activism, the propensity to waste hours of your life, the easy propagation of fake news, or the paucity of meaningful conversation, social media is often viewed negatively.

But social media isn’t all bad. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. In its best moments, social media still accomplishes its purpose quite well: connecting people in ways that were unthinkable just decades ago. For example, social media helps my family stay in touch with one another, even though we’re spread across four states, three time zones, and some 6,250 miles of distance. The immediacy and accessibility of social media platforms lets us communicate with one another in close to real time, helping us remain close.

Of course, not every use of social media leaves us with warm fuzzies. Undoubtedly, everyone reading this can recall at least one time when they’ve considered deactivating or otherwise no longer using a particular platform or application. My suggestion is this: establishing a few good social media habits can help us stay sane and lead to generally positive social media interactions.1 Continue reading

Listening to Destitute Minds

I believe we suffer from a propensity to look at people with whom we disagree and say to ourselves, “That person can’t teach me anything. They are so wrong in how they think, so insufficient in their intellectual capacities, so distorted in their worldview, that I could not possibly see reality more clearly by interacting with this person.”

Think of the political divide. Republicans decry working with “the other side” as a compromise of values. In turn, Democrats seriously question the sanity and morality of those who disagree with their principles. Both sides react with disdain when anyone seeks a third way for moving forward.

Consider the culture wars. One side sees evil lurking everywhere.Government, the news, schools, technology–-all are trying to poison the hearts and minds of the faithful. The other side sees the forces of corruption, corporate task masters, and institutional suppression reigning supreme, preventing people from experiencing true liberation.

Think of what is now 500 years of theological division (non-Chalcedonian and Orthodox brethren aside, of course). For some, the Reformation was the moment of freedom, the removal of the shackles of theological corruption, the purification of doctrine and practice, and remains a cause for great celebration. For others, the Reformation was a grave mistake, a continued blight on the landscape of Christianity, a massive embarrassment, a destruction of unity that should be mourned, not celebrated.

The very way in which we talk to and interact with others is poisoned by the mindset, “You’re wrong. I cannot learn from you.” Too often, the logic is frighteningly simple: Someone is different than me. Since I’m right, that someone is wrong. Therefore, they have nothing of value to offer me or my tribe. Continue reading

A Proposal: When the Rubber Meets the Road

This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.

When the Rubber Meets the Road

The final step of this process brings the historical insights of what the Shepherd of Hermas indicates about the teaching authority of woman into conversation with contemporary conversations about women in the church. Here, several factors play out. First, we must recognize that the Shepherd is not canonical, but it was extremely popular for large swaths of early Christians. That is, this was not some one-off work of a heretic that stands merely as something for Christians to reject; many Christians have found this work insightful and (in some sense) useful for their own lives. Second, the Shepherd comes from Rome, where we know Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were well known, indicating that Hermas’s community (at least) held the call for Grapte to teach and Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in conjunction. Continue reading

A Proposal: Application

This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.

Women in the Apostolic Fathers

As an application of this approach, I want to quickly examine conceptions of women which appear in the early Christian writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. To keep this example as brief as possible, consider one instance where a female character appears in the apocalyptic account known as the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 100-150 CE).4 In Vision 2.4.3, Hermas records being told by an angel the following: “And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and the other to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.” Continue reading

A Proposal: History then Theology

This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.

History then Theology

Once our historiographical assumptions are clarified, we may then turn to the task of integrating historical insight and context into theology. I suggest three steps for this process. First, discern what Christian X says about topic Y, on their own terms and considering their own context. This is the chief purpose of history: to discover what a person (or movement) in the past did and thought, why they did or thought those things, and (in the history of the Church) how they interpreted and lived out the Scriptures and Great Tradition of the faith. Continue reading

A Proposal: Historiographical Models

This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.

Four Historiographic Models

When approaching theological concepts from a historical angle, the issue of historiography must be addressed as a matter of primary important.2 That is, before we make appeals to, for example, what Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistles say about bishops or Thomas Aquinas’s articulation of the beatific vision, we must first answer the question of how to best examine and understand the history of Christianity. Particularly helpful on this topic are the four historiographical models outlined by Kenneth Parker: successionism, supercessionism, developmentalism, and appercessionism.3 Continue reading

A Proposal for Approaching Theology Historically

Several months ago, I was privileged to present a paper at a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. There is nothing quite like the amassed scholarship of these conferences, the gathering of minds eager to pursue knowledge and discuss the finer points of theology, biblical interpretation, and Christian praxis. Of course, it would not truly be a meeting of evangelicals (evangelicals gathered at a Southern Baptist seminary, to wit) without some disagreement over the role that history plays in the tasks of theology. Continue reading

How to Approach Difficult Bible Passages

As a teacher, I am regularly asked about Bible passages and the theology they convey. Sometimes the questions are straightforward; other times, not so much. Some time back, for example, as I was innocently trying to lead our community group through Romans 8:18-30, I was asked how to interpret verses 29-30 in light of that not-at-all-discussed-among-Christians topic of Predestination and Freewill. It happens.

The vast majority of the time, I am more than happy to dig into a text and explain what I think and why. Having been privileged to study under some brilliant Biblical scholars (and having read many more), I am all too eager to hold forth on the Scriptures, and I genuinely hope that my discussion helps those listening. However, in the past several years I have discovered a more fruitful approach to addressing these questions: walking through Bible passages with people and training them how to read and interpret wisely. Continue reading